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An Evangelical Purge, an Evangelical Rebellion and then, Signs of Hope (Really?) | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Photo of the head of Harold Heie.
Harold Heie. Photo via Respectful Conversations

It is absolutely true that, as John Fea likes to point out, not all evangelical colleges are the same. Not all evangelical schools have signed on to Ken Ham’s uninspiring list of Creation Colleges. Not all evangelical colleges have a president who unzipped for the camera. Not all evangelical colleges are so thoroughly messed up as Cedarville.

(For those of you who want to catch up on Cedarville’s ongoing and ever-expanding set of scandals, see: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

That said, most evangelical colleges and universities require faculty to sign – sometimes annually – faith and lifestyle statements that are quite conservative. Related, and as I wrote in an article, evangelical 

schools engage in a good amount of “boundary maintenance.” While fundamentalist schools are much more concerned with strict, impermeable boundaries, and while a good number of faculty members at evangelical schools would not be allowed to teach at a fundamentalist school, the fact is that evangelical colleges can also be quite restrictive, and, on occasion, engage in a purge.

I knew whereof I spoke.

I wrote this article while teaching at Messiah College (now University), a Brethren in Christ school in south-central Pennsylvania (where, by coincidence, Fea now serves as Distinguished Professor of American History). And while I did not share this with my readers, I wrote the first draft of this article while enduring and resisting a brief but very painful crackdown at the college. 

Knowing a good deal about evangelical higher education, I was hesitant to apply for the position at Messiah when it came open in 1988. But my concerns were allayed by the fact that the faith statement did not include a requirement to affirm biblical inerrancy, and by faculty members who assured me that the school was much more Anabaptist than it was evangelical.

Regarding the latter, I discovered that this was a most problematic assertion. It did not take me long to realize that the school was drawing many or most of its students from fundamentalist and evangelical homes. Quoting from the aforementioned article,

This was brought home to me [in my second year] when I taught a course . . . on fundamentalism and televangelism. During one of the class discussions a couple of students alluded to the fact that the only other school they had applied to was Liberty University. Stunned, I asked for a show of hands of all those who had applied to Liberty or Bob Jones; approximately half of the students in that class of 35 answered in the affirmative. 

I loved these students, but I was discomfited about what this said about how the school was promoting itself. More alarming was Messiah’s president. Early in my time there he stood up to angrily rebut a faculty member who had referred to the school as Anabaptist: “No! We are first and foremost an evangelical college!” 

This said, I took great solace in the Vice President for Academic Affairs (VPAA).

Harold Heie was hired the same year I was. Before that he taught math at the King’s College and at Gordon College, and then served as VPAA at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa (where he now resides). And while I had a reflexive distrust of administrators (which has faded a bit over the years), it did not take me long to become a fan of his leadership style. 

For one thing, he was all about trusting Messiah faculty to follow their pedagogical instincts. Those of you who have never taught at an evangelical college have no idea how significant this is. Harold was willing to allow faculty to take chances, to do things that might discomfit the conservative evangelical constituency (e.g., a theater production of Jesus Christ Superstar). He trusted us.

More than this, he was all about pushing faculty to embark on ambitious projects that might have seemed beyond what Messiah faculty members could pull off. If it weren’t for Harold’s gentle encouragement, the Reforming the Center project would never have gotten off the ground. I co-directed this project, which was funded by a major grant from the Lilly Foundation, and which resulted in three major conferences (1994, 1995, and 1996), five articles, and a book. 

But it turns out that, and all these years later it still breaks my heart to say this, Harold was not around for any of the Reforming the Center conferences. 

In the summer of 1993 Messiah faculty received a brief note in our mailboxes informing us that the president had relieved Harold Heie of his services. Today Harold explains that “the reason for my being fired was that my collaborative leadership was diametrically opposed to the command-and-control style of the President and Board.” And of course this is true in as far as it goes. But beneath this was the desire of the President and Board to rein in the faculty, to force them to toe the conservative line in order to placate those in the constituency who assumed that Messiah should look like Liberty. 

What happened next is remarkable in the annals of evangelical higher education. Furious about the firing of this remarkably collegial dean, the faculty responded by organizing a chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). And I agreed to be the chapter president, knowing that it would place a bullseye on my back for the rest of my time at Messiah (which it did).

I confess that it was exhilarating to join with my colleagues in resisting the high-handed actions of the President and Board. One of the best moments was early in the fall of 1993, when AAUP sent to Messiah a representative to meet with the faculty. I met with him for lunch before the big meeting. I spent most of that lunch explaining to this left-leaning organizer how radical it was for an evangelical school to call on AAUP, while at the same time delineating what he could not say in the public meeting (any hint that AAUP was a union would be a disaster). He was great, the room was packed (including some administrators who were there to monitor the rabble-rousers), and I left the meeting thinking we had a chance to bring back Harold Heie, and we had a chance to move the school toward a progressive evangelicalism.

How naïve of me. The Board brought in a Mennonite “mediator” who had no interest in mediating the conflict – there was no conflict to mediate, as the President and Board had spoken. The “mediator” never talked with Harold Heie, and he never talked with faculty leaders who were resisting Harold’s firing (including me as AAUP president). Instead, it was clear that he was hired to get faculty members to shut up and accept the wisdom of the Board.

The faculty member who put on Jesus Christ Superstar was forced out, the faculty member who showed the film Last Temptation of Christ jumped before he was fired, and so on. As I saw it, the only thing that ended the purge was that the president retired at the end of the year. And the final act of resistance occurred at graduation in the spring of 1994, when a vast swath of faculty refused to stand and applaud for the outgoing president. Not much consolation, given the administrative and faculty friends (devout Christians all) who were forced out of the school.

While I escaped the purge, and while it pained me to leave smart and good friends, it was a great relief to leave Messiah in 1996. 

But what of Harold Heie? Well, after his firing he moved on to a role as Founding Director of the Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College. And since his “retirement” in 2003, Harold has been busy in the project of “Respectful Conversations,” in which he has sought – working against the Christian Right takeover of white evangelicalism – real conversations among evangelicals on political discourse, human sexuality, and the like. And in the past year he has published Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation.

The ever-hopeful Harold Heie forces me to ask the question: Is it possible that there is a chance – however slim – that white evangelicalism in America could actually escape the death clutches of Trump and his “Christian” enablers?